Hamlet Act I, Scenes 3–5 Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act I, Scenes 3–5 Summary and Analysis

Act I, Scene 3:

The setting shifts to a room in Polonius’s house. Laertes is preparing to leave for France and is wishing his beautiful sister, Ophelia, farewell. He brings up Ophelia’s budding romance with Prince Hamlet and cautions her against pursuing the relationship further. Laertes reminds Ophelia that, as a prince, Hamlet’s will is not his own. While Hamlet may casually pursue a noblewoman like Ophelia, his marriage is a matter for the state. Given this reality, Laertes tells Ophelia that she must act cautiously and protect her virtue. Ophelia agrees to take this advice to heart, though she points out that Laertes has not exactly followed his own advice. Just then, Polonius enters and chastises Laertes for dawdling while the ship to France awaits. He then proceeds to impart several pieces of advice to Laertes. Polonius advises Laertes to think things through before acting, to remain faithful to his old friends while being wary of new friends, to listen to everyone’s opinions but keep his judgements to himself, to take care with his appearance, to neither borrow nor lend money, and, most importantly, to remain true to himself. Laertes departs after reminding Ophelia to remember his advice. Polonius asks Ophelia what Laertes told her, and she replies that he was giving her advice about Prince Hamlet. When questioned about the nature of her relationship with Hamlet, Ophelia admits that he has confessed his love for her. Agreeing with Laertes, Polonius tells his daughter not to take Hamlet’s words of love seriously and orders her to keep her distance. Ophelia dutifully agrees.

Act I, Scene 4:

Later that night, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus stand outside the castle, waiting for the ghost to reappear. The men hear the sounds of trumpets and cannonfire, which Hamlet explains are from Claudius’s late-night carousing. Hamlet claims that this is a Danish custom that should be breached rather than observed, as it makes Denmark look foolish to other nations. Hamlet argues that just as the tiniest drop of evil can cast doubt on an otherwise-good character, Denmark’s many accomplishments are overshadowed by the perception that its nobles are drunkards. Suddenly, the ghost appears. Hamlet, unsure whether the ghost is friendly or malevolent, asks it to explain why it has come, and the ghost beckons him away from Marcellus and Horatio. They urge Hamlet not to follow it for fear that it may harm him in some way. Hamlet decides to follow the ghost, claiming that he does not value his life and that the ghost cannot harm his immortal soul. After Hamlet and the ghost leave, Marcellus and Horatio decide to follow him.

Act I, Scene 5:

When Hamlet and the ghost are alone, the ghost finally speaks. Claiming to be the spirit of Hamlet’s father, the ghost says that he wants Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” The old king’s ghost reveals that he was not killed by a snake bite (as was reported) but by his brother, Claudius. Hamlet, his suspicions about Claudius confirmed, is appalled. The old king’s ghost tells Hamlet how Claudius secretly poured poison in his ear while he slept in the garden, stealing his life, his crown, and his wife. Killed before he had the chance to seek heavenly forgiveness, the old king is now being punished in the afterlife for his unresolved mortal sins. The ghost urges Hamlet to save Denmark from Claudius’s wickedness and corruption, though he requests that Hamlet spare the queen from his revenge, leaving her to the mercy of heaven and her own conscience. The ghost disappears as the new day dawns, and Hamlet vows to remember and obey the ghost’s orders.

Marcellus and Horatio catch up with Hamlet and ask him what happened, but Hamlet refuses to reveal what he learned. Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus promise to never reveal the events that transpired this night. They swear on Hamlet’s sword, promising to keep these events a secret as the ghost’s voice commands “Swear” from below...

(The entire section is 1,521 words.)